Kata (型 or 形 literally: "form") is a Japanese word describing detailed choreographed patterns of movements practised either solo or in pairs. The term form is used for the corresponding concept in non-Japanese martial arts in general.
Kata are used in many traditional Japanese arts such as theater forms like kabuki and schools of tea ceremony (chado), but are most commonly known for the presence in the martial arts. Kata are used by most Japanese and Okinawan martial arts, such as aikido, judo, kendo and karate.
Kata originally were teaching and training methods by which successful combat techniques were preserved and passed on. Practicing kata allowed a company of persons to engage in a struggle using a systematic approach, rather than as individuals in a disorderly manner.
The basic goal of kata is to preserve and transmit proven techniques and to practice self-defence. By practicing in a repetitive manner the learner develops the ability to execute those techniques and movements in a natural, reflex-like manner. Systematic practice does not mean permanently rigid. The goal is to internalize the movements and techniques of a kata so they can be executed and adapted under different circumstances, without thought or hesitation. A novice’s actions will look uneven and difficult, while a master’s appear simple and smooth.
Japanese martial arts
In Japanese martial arts practice, kata is often seen as an essential partner to randori training with one complementing the other. However, the actual type and frequency of kata versus randori training varies from art to art. In iaido, solo kata using the Japanese sword (katana) comprises almost all of the training. Whereas in judo, kata training is de-emphasized and usually only prepared for dan grading.
In kenjutsu, paired kata at the beginners level can appear to be stilted. At higher levels serious injury is prevented only by a high sensitivity of both participants to important concepts being taught and trained for. These include timing and distance, with the kata practiced at high speed. This adjustability of kata training is found in other Japanese arts with roles of attacker and defender often interchanging within the sequence.
Many martial arts use kata for public demonstrations and in competitions, awarding points for such aspects of technique as style, balance, timing, and verisimilitude (appearance of being real).
The most popular image associated with kata is that of a karate practitioner performing a series of punches and kicks in the air. The kata are executed as a specified series of approximately 20 to 70 moves, generally with stepping and turning, while attempting to maintain perfect form. There are perhaps 100 kata across the various forms of karate, each with many minor variations. The number of moves in a kata may be referred to in the name of the kata, e.g., Gojū Shiho, which means "54 steps." The number of moves may also have links with Buddhist spirituality. The number 108 is significant in Buddhism & Hinduism, signifying the 108 ways the mind can behave (Upanishads) and kata with 54, 36, or 27 moves (divisors of 108) are common. The practitioner is generally counselled to visualize the enemy attacks, and his responses, as actually occurring, and karateka are often told to "read" a kata, to explain the imagined events. The study of the meaning of the movements is referred to as the bunkai, meaning analysis, of the kata.
One explanation of the use of kata is as a reference guide for a set of moves. Not to be used following that "set" pattern but to keep the movements "filed". After learning these kata, this set of learned skills can then be used in a sparring scenario (particularly without points). The main objective here is to try out different combinations of techniques in a safe, practice environment to ultimately find out how to defeat your opponent.
In kata the blocking movements are often performed while moving forward, which wouldn't be practical during the Bunkai. These blocking movements would be performed during a Tai sabaki (体捌き), stepping-back action, where the opponent's attack would be avoided and the block would be a mere cover.